Wednesday, July 15, 2020
10:00 AM |
The Film Meme No. 81
[81st of 100].
The only perfect way to describe the experience of watching Tran Anh Hung's magnificent feature film debut is to say something like, "It feels like reading poetry," or "It feels like listening to a soothing symphony." Critics have done exactly that when it came out in 1993, astounding everyone with the tranquil beguilement of this Vietnamese film. I think the comparisons to poetry and music is just a way for its admirers to describe tangentially what the film does, which feels like indescribable witchcraft: all of it is the sum of quiet moments recollected. It is a sensibility that pervades the structure of the film, which is set in a sprawling property of a middle-class Vietnamese family, in a neighborhood perhaps located in Saigon before its fall in 1975. [We infer this because sometimes we hear the distant noise of flying helicopters, planes, and curfew sirens, reminding us of the unseen menace that hovers outside but gets lost in the tranquility of house and garden.] We follow a young girl, Mui, as she emerges from the shadows of the street into the compound. We learn soon after that she is the new househelp, hailing straight from the countryside. Her eyes become our eyes, and we are soon observing the minutiae of life in this household, which includes the elder housekeeper and cook, who teaches Mui not just the constancy of housework but also the secrets of making-do when the family finds themselves in a bind. ["When there isn't much food, make it salty," she teaches Mui when there is not enough money to buy ingredients for viands, "That way, they'll eat more rice with the dishes."] The challenges come because the father is not exactly an upright man, regularly disappearing for months on ends to sate his whimsies, stealing the household funds, and leaving his wife to tend not just the family but also their small dress-making business. The wife is patient and long-suffering, and soon takes to doting on Mui as the daughter she never had -- an impression not lost on her three sons, the two youngest of whom resort to childish shenanigans to disturb Mui and her tireless attention to housekeeping. I make it sound like major domestic melodrama, when it's really not: the film is mostly quiet throughout its running time, broken only by the incidental "noises" of bird calls, crickets songs, splashes of water, the crackle of cooking, the thum of prayer bells, the sounds of string instruments playing into the night. Mui hears them all like an absorbent observer, the way she also sees things: the white sap of papaya falling on leaves, crickets, ants, frogs, rain, the white pearls of green papaya seeds. These kaleidoscope of little things is the world of the film, and the very consciousness of Mui -- underscored by the minimalist music of Tôn-Thât Tiêt, at times playful and whimsical, at times naughty and thrilling. The soundscape of this film is so layered and rich, it make the film's world so thoroughly engrossing. Mui's story continues, of course, when she is older and pursuing a different life where she finally finds love -- but the second act follows very much the sensibility of the first it's easy to see the continuum, time just blending into itself. It's remarkable to take note that the entire film was actually made on a soundstage in Paris, and not on location in Vietnam -- so stark is its realism and attention to detail -- but you can sense that in pursuing that Tran Anh Hung has all the visual elements under control, a necessity in invoking a world that is already lost: the way the film unfurls that world, there is also much evocation of it like memory. I think it is the same spirit that informs much of Alfonso Cuaron's recreation of his childhood neighborhood in Roma
. In an interview, Tran once said that his intention in making the film, and making it in a very specific approach, was "to give a daily life to a people. And I think that against the backdrop of these people who have now been humanized and have a daily life, one can understand the atrocities all the better. I grew up in France, and yet I wanted people to have at their disposal a body of film about Vietnam. And yet I found that there was no cultural foundation for that heritage. If a Japanese filmmaker wishes to make a film about Japan, he or she has recourse to a ton of people: Ozu, Mizoguchi. I have this problem of a lack of cinematic heritage behind me. I had to make a film that was a departure to something. Fundamentally, I guess you could say that I made a film for nothing: just to create artificially and pretentiously a cinematographic past for myself." [You can watch the entire film here
.] What's the film?
For the introduction to this meme, read here
 This is Where You Bite the Sandwich
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